Top positive review
Important History, but Demonizes Psychiatry and Could be Harmful
Reviewed in the United States on March 15, 2019
I picked up this book in hardcover while working in my university’s library back in the early 2000’s. I had just been diagnosed with bipolar and was seeking out whatever information I could on mental illness treatment.
Whitaker painstakingly takes us through the dreadful history of treating mental illness, focusing specifically on the late 19th century onward. From ice baths to isolation to the popularity of lobotomy from the 1920’s through the 50’s (doctors traveling across the country with an ice pick as their instrument; through the corner of the eye and removing a bit of the brain right in your home)—however, Whitaker does not explore how lobotomy was used mainly on women to control their emotions. There is an obviously sexist subtext to mental health treatment from the 50’s up to the 70’s: to control willful women.
Then Whitaker explores the creation and advances of psychopharmacology. And yes, early medication of schizophrenics and the mentally ill was disgusting and immoral. It led to sterilization and medicinal lobotomies. And pharmaceutical companies did hide harmful side-effects in order to get their drugs approved by the FDA.
But it’s nothing *new.* As we see in reports today, major pharmaceutical companies falsify or mask negative effects of their medication. In 2019, this still happens. Whitaker wants to lay the blame on psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness through medication. The problem isn’t psychiatry, the problem is Capitalism and for-profit health care.
To be honest, if I wasn’t treated by my psychiatric medication, I’d either be dead or an unproductive member of society. My medications allow me to exist in this culture.
So the case Whitaker makes is a good one, but it ignores the complexity and improvement modern mental health care deals with.
Just like modern medicine had to deal with bloodletting and leeches and mysticism, so, too, does psychiatry have to answer for its demons. But that does not mean psychiatry is bad science. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t help people. It’s evolving and will continue to evolve.
Just look at what has happened in all medical science in the 17 years since this book was published.